SO MUCH HAS been said about the loving and nurturing characteristics of Dennis Brutus and his political and literary contributions. Those who knew him understood how much he wanted to encourage future generations of radicals and poets.
Yet sometimes it is also useful to know a person through the enemies they keep, and Dennis Brutus had a superb collection. They ranged from apartheid racists to international capitalists and multilateral institutions, to some of his ex-comrades who were post-apartheid compromisers responsible for a South Africa where today, 16 years after freedom, the state recently confessed that whites enjoy annual real income one quarter higher than in 1994, and that blacks actually lost income.
During his lifetime Dennis called several South African cities, as well as London, Chicago and Pittsburgh, his home. He was an independent leftist throughout. In his teens he fought racism in sports and soon learned politics in the Trotskyist movement of South Africa’s Eastern Cape region (known as the Teachers’ League), when he radicalized many high school youth while teaching at Paterson High.
His subsequent feats are recounted, with humility and humor, in the 2006 Haymarket Press book Poetry and Protest (edited by Aisha Karim and Lee Sustar.) Here are just some of the highlights along the way:
1924 — born in Harare, Zimbabwe but family soon moved to Port Elizabeth
1950s — community, sport and teacher organizing, and early poems in the Eastern Cape, after undergraduate degree at Fort Hare (South Africa’s main black university)
1961 — first banning order mainly due to anti-racist sports activism and journalism
1963 — shot in the back trying to escape apartheid police, then tortured on Robben Island
1966 — released from prison only to be deported to Britain with his family
1968 — persuaded 30 Third World Olympics teams to threaten to boycott Mexico if the white SA team played (they were not allowed), and then achieved South Africa’s formal expulsion in 1972
1960s-’90s — as an exiled academic, helped generate an African literary community, publishing a dozen poetry volumes and organizing writer associations and events first in London (1966-71), then at Chicago’s Northwestern University (1971-84) followed by the University of Pittsburgh where he was professor emeritus
1970s–’80s — eloquently advocated divestment of U.S. corporations from South Africa, anti-apartheid sanctions and the cultural/academic boycott, fighting off Reagan Administration attempts to deport him
1990s — gave support to high-profile political prisoners, especially Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal
1998 — worked with South African independent leftist and church activists to found Jubilee South Africa (alongside Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and Prof. Fatima Meer)
1999 — active in mobilizations for, and civil disobedience at, the Seattle WTO protest
2000 — at World Bank/IMF protests in Washington and Prague, helped initiate the World Bank Boycott and successfully advocated disinvestment of bank bonds by major municipalities and pension funds
2000-09 — helped launch the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and Anti-Privatisation Forum, and throughout the 2000s offered constant solidarity to SA’s new urban social movements
2000s — chaired successful campaign against U.S. Navy’s test-bombing of Vieques (Puerto Rico)
2001 — excited by the advent of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, attended nearly every gathering, and promoted global left unity in its image
2001 — served as lead critic of the UN at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, helping to lead a march of 10,000 demanding (unsuccessfully) that Zionism and reparations for slavery, colonialism and apartheid be put on the agenda
2002 — moved to South Africa and assisted 30,000 local activists in swarming the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, on grounds of its corporate domination and neoliberal eco-social policies
2002-03 — assisted Durban activists with an anti-capitalist critique as a leader of protests against the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development and then the Southern African World Economic Forum (and was injured when a police horse knocked him over at the Durban International Convention Centre)
2003 — participated in anti-war mobilizations and was commissioner in the independent George W. Bush War Crimes Commission
2003-09 — helped initiate apartheid reparations lawsuits and lifted them over many hurdles
2005 — advocated against sweatshops, especially at the University of Pittsburgh
2005-2009 — offered solidarity to Burmese and Tamil liberation struggles, and to Palestinians and Lebanese under attack from Israel (including bearing witness to the Lebanon invasion in July 2006), and in early 2009 during the Gaza incursion strongly promoted the Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign in Durban
2007 — adapted Howard Zinn’s one-man play “#8220;Marx in Soho” for South Africa, performing it across the region
2007 — honored with membership in SA’s Sports Hall of Fame but rejected it because of the persistence of racism
2008 — supported the case of University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society founder Adam Habib (banned from entering the United States on spurious grounds) by initiating a protest at Durban’s U.S. Consulate
2008-09 — announced opposition to South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup, arguing that the soccer tournament would result in extremely expensive white elephant stadiums and increased oppression of poor people, including displaced street hawkers and fisherfolk whom he supported against municipal oppression
2009 — called for the “#8220;Seattling” of the Copenhagen climate summit, on grounds that Third World leaders could recognize — and should resist — a bad deal (as did Africa in 1999 at the Seattle WTO), and that outside, an increasingly militant Climate Justice movement should engage in direct action to protest elites’ failure to cut emissions, pay ecological debt and transcend carbon trading gimmicks
Along the way came a variety of enemies. Typical was Sam Ramsamy, a South African whose 1990 putsch against Dennis (then chair of the SA NonRacial Olympic Committee) was to ease coming compromises with white officialdom.
A week after Dennis died, Ramsamy observed that one of the world’s greatest sports justice campaigners “#8220;did not fully comprehend the realities of reconciliation. Sadly, he divorced himself from post-apartheid reconstruction of SA sport ... [H]e did not fully comprehend the realities of reconciliation and the difficult process of uniting all sectors of SA society.”
True, Dennis did not understand the complexities of reconciliation and “#8220;nation-building.” This is not because he was trapped in an obsessive racial mindset. He was the most open and approachable person on a one-to-one basis. During the 1990s-2000s, as he became involved in South Africa radical social movement politics, he freed himself from those complexities, just as he had earlier during apartheid when the “#8220;realities” allowed “#8220;responsible” blacks to bolster the P.W. Botha regime’s fake reforms.
In the same way, when he protested against pollution in South Durban, Dennis did not understand the complexities of the job market and industrial policy, and did not understand what corporate incentives were required to make neoliberal economic policy work. He similarly did not understand the “#8220;macroeconomic constraints” informing government’s housing policy when he joined forces with radical community groups opposing evictions.
Nor did he have a clue about how essential it was to allow a black middle class to quickly accumulate a stake in the economy when he criticized corruption and “#8220;Black Economic Empowerment” cronyism.
Similarly, Dennis never quite grasped the need to forgo justice, during Pretoria’s post-1994 quest to please global financial markets. He sought to bring to book those multinational corporations which invested in apartheid. Former Justice Minister Penuell Maduna criticized Brutus and his cohorts in Jubilee South Africa for pursuing reparations, and Maduna is now a lawyer for those same corporations.
A central voice in the reparations case in the United States, Brutus would not listen to Thabo Mbeki’s government when it filed an amicus brief in the U.S. courts to prevent the case going ahead in 2003. This was a year after Mbeki’s hatchetman Essop Pahad (former editor of the World Marxist Review) called his former schoolteacher “#8220;Dennis the Menace” in the main newspaper just prior to Johannesburg’s UN environment summit. Dennis refused to listen to pleas and threats that his actions would harm a proper investment climate.
Unlike Ramsamy, Dennis did not understand that there are limits to principle, or that ideals are bargaining chips. Most of all Dennis was unlike Ramsamy in that he divorced himself from the gravy trains and planes into which literally thousands of former freedom fighters were inserted in order to obtain their “#8220;comprehension” of “#8220;reconstruction” in South Africa.
Dennis did not know how to play the game, Ramsamy style. His refusal to be inducted into the SA Sports Hall of Fame alongside apartheid apologist Gary Player, apartheid police captain Naas Botha and apartheid money bag-man Ali Bacher suggests that he never understood what a complex business is airbrushing history, nor did he get it that those who question the fabrications can come across looking quite mad.
Ramsamy recalls the height of popular mobilizations against a racist “#8220;rebel cricket tour” by British players in early 1990: “#8220;By Friday February 9th, it had become necessary to reduce the temperature… Thabo Mbeki phoned me in London: ‘Let me tell you in confidence…Madiba [Mandela] is going to be released this weekend, and we don’t want him released into an atmosphere of violence and disruption. We must contain the situation, and restore some kind of calm… Please tell your people to call off the troops’… I will do that, I replied.”
Dennis never comprehended the need for unquestioning troops who had to do the leader’s bidding. That was not his form of liberation; instead he would have consulted with the people on the streets asking them what they wanted to do, debating issues. His irresponsibly purist attitudes about democracy, about the need to stay accountable to the masses, and about the need for history to be decided in common rather than in cabal might have jeopardized the whole country’s future “#8220;reconstruction.”
Dennis, unlike Ramsamy, was not disciplined. He objected to Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, his nurturing of repression in Zimbabwe and his “#8220;polishing the chains of global apartheid” as Dennis liked to put it. Ramsamy would not enter such discussions because they are not sporting matters. Ramsamy is a respectful fellow, and does not read memorandums outside embassies any longer nor wail his poetry to ranks of men with batons.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to fathom whether Dennis’ one-track and often lone-voice-in-the-wilderness act was simplicity or a revolutionary hardness. If Dennis saw an injustice, he threw his hat into the ring. He would not stop criticizing an inequity just because it would be good for nation-building or the economy or social stability (or his own career) to allow it to occur. And yet his criticism and his activism always came from within an “#8220;us,” however small.
No, Dennis was no flashy leader of people, filled with clever theories, strategic power-plays and money-making plans. Like his namesake, he stabbed tyranny everywhere in the heart, or tried to.
At the opening game of the 2010 Britain-SA cricket match at Cape Town’s Newlands stadium the flags flew at half mast for Dennis. But Dennis would himself have loathed a place where he is a national icon, part of the national project. Dennis lived his latter years in which we knew him, trying hard to understand how not to be trapped within a civilized society that governments and corporations are so good at co-opting.
Because his interpersonal style was so elegant and his manner so mild, affable and indulgent, one often missed the force with which Dennis spat his much more critical ideas into the face of people like Mandela. Dennis was not just another player on the same team of democratic transformation of this country and of its sport.
He held onto ideas steeped in one principle, social justice — whatever the cost to nations, sports, economies and institutions. For him, a society without justice was not worth perpetuating.
Dennis’ problems comprehending what was good for him predated the end of apartheid. He never learnt the lesson of retreat. He knew the apartheid regime was after him. Still he stayed in the country in the 1960s, even had the temerity to try to escape from custody, was shot down in the street and sent to jail, to break rocks — unlike the quick-witted Ramsamy who escaped all this fuss and simply left for London at the first hint of trouble.
Ramsamy is right to say that Brutus never understood what goes under the name of “#8220;reconstruction” and “#8220;transformation” of sport and society in contemporary South Africa — which is now the most unequal major country on earth. His mind, his heart and his guts were incapable of these constraints.
ATC 145, March-April 2010>